And still I rise! Asmaa James takes radio back to the people

Rise Radio was born of Asmaa James's passion for talk radio and her determination to give women and young people a voice through the mainstream media.

Sierra Leone’s Rise Radio is the result Asmaa James’s commitment to talk radio and her determination to give women and young Sierra Leoneans more of a voice in the mainstream media.

She describes radio as her passion, and anyone who has followed her professional journey can attest to the truth of that statement. A Mandela Washington Fellow, she was recognised by the Independent Media Commission as the most outstanding female journalist in Sierra Leone and in 2019 the BBC named her one of the 100 most influential women in the world. Throughout it all, she has remained faithful to her first love – talk radio.

The power of radio

“Radio remains the most powerful avenue for reaching Sierra Leonean audiences,” she explains. “It is our most inclusive and credible source of information.”

Rise Radio – the most recent incarnation of Asmaa’s passion, was already a gleam in her eye three years ago. Translating that gleam into reality though, was a tough decision. She had been 22 years at Radio Democracy and it felt like home.

At the same time, she was looking for a fresh challenge and setting up her own radio station – one that used the talk radio format to support the empowerment of women and young people – Asmaa’s other great cause – seemed like a logical next step.

“As always when you work for an establishment and have been there for so long – you need new challenges, and I had a vision that I wanted to make happen. I’m passionate about amplifying the voices of young people and girls and women, through the media. That is my dream for Rise Radio.”

The name – Rise – reflects the station’s ethos. “I wanted something catchy and easy to remember,” says Asmaa. “And helping our listeners and staff rise together is the objective of the station.”

The support she received from colleagues, family and friends to make Rise a reality, is testament to the reputation that Asmaa has built for herself in the industry. “A network of people came together to help me set it up,” Asmaa tells me. “And I have a very supportive husband. Whatever we dream, we dream together.”

Skills development

It’s no surprise that skills development is an important element in the Rise mix. It’s Asmaa’s way of building a new generation of radio journalism in Sierra Leone. “We have 18-20 people here – all are media virgins,” Asmaa explains as we enter the newsroom. Through Rise, she works with the University of Sierra Leone to offer students and graduates from the Mass Communications Degree course, the extraordinary opportunity to work in a modern and forward looking radio station.

“We give them 6-9 months of intense training on the equipment and in the principles and practice of broadcast journalism. Many graduates from the Mass Communications course find it hard to get into broadcasting,” she says. “We’re trying to provide an avenue for those who really want to make radio their career.”

Although Sierra Leone has made progress towards becoming a more inclusive environment, women and young people still struggle to be heard. This severely limits their ability to contribute fully to the development of their communities and wider society. Rise’s ambition to put their issues at the centre of the news agenda has the potential to play an important role in Sierra Leone’s long and winding nation building journey, as well as fill a gap in Sierra Leone’s media landscape. Congratulations Asmaa James!

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